What is Active Listening?

May 12, 2009 on 4:18 pm | In Negotiations | 1 Comment

When you are negotiating, selling, or in any situation where you need to build a relationship, there is one very simple skill you should master to make these encounters more powerful and rewarding. It is the skill of active listening.

What exactly is that? There is an old adage that God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason – we should listen twice as much as we talk. Stephen Covey tells us that a key habit of successful people is to seek first to understand – then to be understood. We all want to be understood – or at least heard. The problem is that most of us have developed some very bad habits that send constant signals to people that we are NOT listening! So one goal of active listening is to shut down those signals.

The first of these is to establish solid eye contact. This is not a staring contest to see who can go without blinking for the longest time. Eye contact tells the person that you are focused on them; that you are listening to their every word. It should be natural and you should try very hard to not pay attention to the TV behind them, or the dog running down the street, or the cop writing a ticket on – wait a minute is that your car? OK, there are legitimate distractions, but absent that, stay focused on the speaker.

You can also use positive body language. Stand straight. Nod in understanding. This does not indicate agreement; only that you are listening. Where you place your hands can also invite the speaker to provide more detail or explanation. Putting your hands on your hips (called “akimbo”) suggests that you are impatient and this will quiet them more quickly. Fiddling with change in your pocket or jingling keys can have that same effect. Try to keep your hands still. Don’t sway, dance, or shuffle your feet. Be relaxed. And listen.

We can all listen far more quickly than even the most rapid speaker can talk. What we usually do with this surplus brain power is to formulate what we are going to say next. While some thinking allows us to comprehend what is being said, resist the temptation to formulate your entire next monologue after hearing the first ten words of the person speaking. In the same vein, don’t interrupt. Even if justified, it makes people angry and they respond accordingly. Let people drone on if they must. It makes them feel as if they are being heard. This sometimes takes some patience, but it is part of active listening and a trait that you should work to develop.

You should also practice a few natural phrases that encourage people to tell their whole story. Such phrases as, “and then what happened?’ or “and how did that make you feel?” or “Please tell me more” all serve to get more detail from the speaker. Not everyone is a good storyteller, so they might need some coaching to get the story laid out in a complete fashion. To improve your skill in this area practice telling jokes or short stories. Very few people do this well, but it can be learned. One positive suggestion is to read Mark Twain – the consummate storyteller.

The last suggestion for now (there is more, but we will cover that next time!) is to practice repetition and rephrasing. State to the person what you heard. Put it in your own words if you must, but this gives them a level of confidence that you understood things they way they intended to convey them. This repetition also locks it into your mind so that you can recall it later.

Practicing active listening is harder for some than it is for others, but in negotiations it is a critical skill that is worth the practice.

1 Comment

  1. hey this is a very interesting article!

    Comment by KeHoeff — May 28, 2009 #

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